Dear Dr. Debbie,
My friend and I were reminiscing about the relative freedom we had as children. When we were even as young as 3 years old, we could roam the neighborhood which included a playground, a ball field, several patches of woods, a creek and countless backyards. Rarely did we feel anything other than a sense of confidence and conquest for having survived our adventurous days. The big kids solved most of the problems we couldn’t handle ourselves, or as a last resort we took insults and injuries home to our parents.
Now as an adult, I find myself cringing at the thought of a 3-year-old on the loose without direct adult supervision. Have we gained a measure of adults’ sense of security but in the process lost children’s sense of feeling safe wherever they are?
Child of the Past
Don’t miss last week’s column Gathering patience — Good Parenting
Dear Child of the Past,
I, too, grew up feeling that the older kids (by two years or more) were enough protection for my age-mates and myself against any evil — be it from nature or humankind. We knew one another well because we didn’t move as much as families do today, and most houses on the block had a stay-at-home mom in them. The parents knew all the children, and each other, well. Besides frequent backyard or basement birthday parties — depending on the season — there was an annual block party at the end of each summer.
We were free to play outside every day until the streetlights came on. The “bigger” kids could foretell thunderstorms, enforce rules of fairness for games, tell the difference between the friendly dogs and the unfriendly ones and identify poison ivy. They knew where and how to catch crayfish and pollywogs from the creek. They directed us in the proper techniques of sledding down the big hills. We felt honored to gradually acquire such knowledge and skills so that we, in turn, could provide assistance and protection to those who came after — that is, children at least two years younger.
I believe there is an instinct in children to take care of one another — particularly when they have had good models of nurturing at home. A group of children who play together regularly seem to account for each other’s differences — whether it be in size, age or abilitiy. Everyone is valued because everyone has a role to play when they play. They look out for the little ones who soon learn they can hold their own when challenged.
What we’ve lost is a natural learning environment for true self-development. This includes learning who you are and what you are capable of, as well as the essential skills needed to interact with others for the greater good.
Reclaiming this loss seems impossible, given how little we know our own neighborhoods and those that live there. The best we can give children today is as stable a social circle as we can, with as much geographic freedom as we grown-ups feel comfortable with. Maybe it’s time for a block party.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com